Stage One: Non-Directive Meditation
Chan (Zen) is often percieved in one of two different ways by people: either as a religious institution, characterized by its lore, rhetoric, canonical texts, monastic customs, beliefs, etc, or as a mystical/ascetic tradition which focuses on spiritual disciplines that lead to an expanded awareness of Self. These two "faces" of Chan, however, do not always exist together harmoniously, but that's a topic for another day. The term, Chan, is the transliteration of the Sanskrit term, dhyana, which means to dwell, or to meditate. The objective of this set of four essays is to offer the reader a perspective of the mystical journey of Chan, a journey that is dependent only upon our desire to delve within, to uncover hidden and previously unknown aspects of being.
The contemporary Western world has engaged in a kind of romance with Zen for several decades now. The term has gained popularity from its use to sell products and services, to entice people to join clubs and groups, and to sell books; it’s therefore not surprising that misunderstandings about Chan/Zen have evolved, leading it to be characterized as something quite different from the mystical tradition we will explore here.
Chan's mystical tradition is about meditation and the processess of "delving within." It is also about the journey that accompanies this process. The activity of Chan practice leads to a flowing, cascading, sequence of discoveries that unfold as we travel its path. To get there takes some preparation, for the mind and for the psyche, as well as for the physical body. All three need to be in the “right place” for everything to work. What is that “right place”? Where do we start, and how to we get to where we want to go?
First, we have to be alive. This may seem a silly and flippant thing to say, but consider how many of us go through our days oblivious to the fact that we are, indeed, alive? We go through all the motions of being alive: getting dressed, eating breakfast, driving to work, talking with people; but how much of this is simply reflexive? Without full awareness, how much can we consider ourselves fully “alive”? To breath and eat and defecate has a certain sound of life about it, but to what extent are we aware throughout it all? So the first step is to become alive – to become increasingly aware of ourselves and the environment in which we live. This first process involves training the mind to see, and is what I refer to as stage one in a four-stage process. Practice here involves harmonizing the mind, psyche, and body. The results are reduced stress, improved sleep, improved ability to engage in reciprocal relationships with acquaintances, friends, and family, improved cardio-vascular health, and, perhaps most importantly, a greater sense of contentment and well-being.
This beginning practice goes by many names in popular culture including Transcendental Meditation [TM], “mindfulness meditation,” Acem meditation, and MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). Psychologists generally categorize these approaches as “non-directive” meditation techniques. They are non-directive because we don’t try to focus (direct) our concentration on anything, but simply do our best to watch the mind as it moves from one thing to the next, allowing it to do what it will while being attentive to it.
Some Japanese-styled Zen teachers equate Zen, in its entirety, with this stage of practice. Instructions from the popular Japanese-based Soto Zen website (sotozen-net.or.jp) read: "Do not concentrate on any particular object or control your thought. When you maintain a proper posture and your breathing settles down, your mind will naturally become tranquil. When various thoughts arise in your mind, do not become caught up by them or struggle with them; neither pursue nor try to escape from them. Just leave thoughts alone, allowing them to come up and go away freely. The essential thing in doing zazen [sitting meditation] is to awaken (kakusoku) from distraction and dullness, and return to the right posture moment by moment." [Note 1] Chan practices differ from this interpretation of Zen in significant ways that will be presented in this and subsequent articles.
This first practice is generally accessible to anyone and some degree of accomplishment can be made with quickly. For one who has never approached meditation of any kind before, I recommend the following before getting started with stage one:
- Avoid eating a big meal before starting. Find a place without distractions. Allocate a fixed amount of time when you can be assured that you won't be disturbed.
- Sit comfortably on a chair without leaning back on the back-rest. Usually sitting on the first third to half works well. Avoid couches or furniture with soft cushions: a firm seat helps maitain good posture. Sit with the back “straight,” the head and neck in-line with the spinal cord, the shoulders relaxed.
- Take five to ten slow deep breaths, being sure to exhale all the way before starting the next breath.
- Close the eyes and observe what the mind is doing. It may be hearing a car drive by, or noticing an itch, or thinking about the laundry that needs cleaning, or the tomatoes that need picking. Just sit and watch the mind move. If it gets lost in mental-chatter, simply bring it back to watching again and observe the mental chatter. Each time you bring the mind back to watchful attention, the process gets easier and more automatic.
- The first time try going for five minutes. You can set a timer. If you lose the ability to pay attention, stop and take a break. The next time, add a couple minutes to the time and work your way up to a daily 20- or 30-minute session.
Do this once a day for three months. After the first month you will have begun to notice a great many changes. You will have less anxiety/stress, you will feel better, sleep better, and will notice improvement of your overall physical and mental health.
For those of you who may doubt the value of this practice, considering the time and dedication it will take to do it for three months, looking at the research that has been done may help settle any doubts about its efficacy in improving health and well-being.
In 2006 B. R. Cahn and J. Polich found that mindfulness practices stimulated the middle prefrontal brain associated with metacognition and self-observation. Juergen Fell and others found that first-time meditators practicing non-directive techniques quickly learn to moderate alpha-wave activity (8 to 12 Hz, characteristic of pre-sleeping/pre-waking states), slowing its rhythm while increasing its power, and observed that this effect was independent of how much experience a person had with mindfulness methods, or from what “school” they belonged to. Other researchers have shown this form of meditation to lower blood pressure (Robert D Brook, et al.), help in rehabilitation from drug abuse (A. Zgierska), and offer many other health benefits (P. Grossman).
There is no risk, no danger, associated with doing this stage one practice and its benefits are numerous if not profound. Many people who get through Stage One get “hooked” and continue on to stage two: concentration, the precursor to contemplation and Chan.
In the next installment, I will explain stage two and offer exercises for those ready to forge ahead…
Note 1 This notion, which some also refer to as “just sitting,” is a fairly recent development in the history of Zen, as the foundation of Chan in the Mahayana Sutras makes no reference to non-directive techniques, but rather begin with concentration, or directed-meditation, approaches (c.f., the Surangama Sutra for example).
Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits, A meta-analysis by Paul Grossman, Ludger Niemann, Stefan Schmidt, Harald Walach, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, July 2004, Volume 57, Issue 1, Pages 35–43.
Mindfulness Meditation for Substance Use Disorders: A Systematic Review , by Aleksandra Zgierska, MD, PhD, David Rabago, MD, Neharika Chawla, MS, Kenneth Kushner, PhD, Robert Koehler, MLS, and Allan Marlatt, PhD, Substance Abuse 2009 Oct–Dec; 30(4): 266–294.
Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure : A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association, by Robert D Brook, Lawrence J. Appel, Melvyn Rubenfire, Gbenga Ogedegbe, John D. Bisognano, William J. Elliott, Flavio D. Fuchs, Joel W. Hughes, Daniel T. Lackland, Beth A. Staffileno, Raymond R. Townsend and Sanjay Rajagopalan (April 22, 2013). Hypertension 61 (6): 1360–83.
Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies, by Cahn BR, Polich J., Psychol Bull. 2006 Mar;132(2):180-211.